Frequently Asked Questions
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
The Supreme Court ruled on a much-anticipated case that opened the floodgates of corporate money into our political system. The court overturned well-established judicial precedents that upheld restrictions on unlimited corporate and union spending expressly advocating the election or defeat of candidates.
What is Citizens United?
During the 2008 election, a conservative non-profit organization named "Citizens United" produced Hillary: The Movie, a documentary critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. Because of the political nature of the movie and the fact that Citizens United intended to purchase airtime on a video on-demand service on cable television, the movie was deemed an "electioneering communication" by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and was therefore subject to the rules governing the production of political ads, including limitations on who may fund them. Citizens United sued in federal court to overturn the decision, lost and appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court held two hearings on the case and its ruling ultimately went far beyond what the plaintiffs had sought. The 5-4 decision permits corporations, unions and other special interests to spend as much as they like to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. Laws that bar those interests from contributing directly to candidates remain in place but the ruling lifted controls on political giving that had been in place for decades.
Why does this matter?
Corporations already wield tremendous influence in our political system by virtue of the billions of dollars they spend on campaign contributions and lobbying every year, even in a system with limits on political giving. In 2009, the health care industry spent more than $263 million on lobbyists. Since the Supreme Court ruled that any limitation on corporate contributions – which were in place since 1907 when Congress passed the Tillman Act – are unconstitutional, corporations and unions have begun to crowd out the general public and will start to become the principal source of money for any candidate who hopes to win a seat in Congress.
Corporations would have so much money to donate to candidates that they can use it to drown out the voices of individual citizens. Reforms dealing with climate change or skyrocketing health care costs will only be possible if they somehow benefit the huge corporations that are bankrolling elections. More likely, companies will continue to oppose these and other populist measures in favor of legislation addressing their specific corporate interests.
How does this affect Common Cause's efforts to pass public financing reforms on the state and national levels?
The ruling has no effect on the constitutionality of public financing programs already in place in Maine, Connecticut, Arizona and other states. Indeed, Citizens United highlights the need to implement something similar to the “clean elections” laws in those states at the federal level.
In April, the U.S. Senate is expected to consider the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation that would create a voluntary system of small donations and limited public funding for congressional candidates. This citizen-funded election model would put all contributions on an equal playing field—corporate, union, PAC and your donations. Candidates opting into this system could accept contributions of no more than $100 and only from individual donors. In the current, money-driven political system, members of Congress and candidates spend countless hours each day raising money from the same lobbyists and special interests they're supposed to oversee in Washington. The Fair Elections system would reduce members of Congress reliance on these special interest donors and encourage them to give more attention to their constituents.
What can I do?
Please contact your member of Congress and ask them to keep big money out of politics by co-sponsoring the Fair Elections Now Act. We need your voice to end the pay-to-play political system in Washington. To find out more information go to www.commoncause.org/FairElectionsNowAct.